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THEATER REVIEW Fulfillment Center
by Lauren Emily Whalen

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Playwright: Abe Koogler

At: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St. Tickets: $30-40; . Runs through: March 24

These days, everyone's trying to make a statement.

Theater companies have their reasons. These are trying political times ( to put it mildly ) and plays offer a unique opportunity for showcasing the state of the world and provoking audience thought. However, attempts to make a statement can get incredibly clumsy and even well thought-out politically-themed productions can get exhausting to watch. Fulfillment Center is hardly bubbly escapism, but doesn't try to be more than it is. Instead, Abe Koogler's play is a quiet character study on four lonely people in the New Mexico desert just before the holidays. Thoughtfully directed by Jess McLeod, A Red Orchid's Chicago premiere prioritizes human lives over sweeping declarations and simply put, that's refreshing.

Fulfillment Center kicks off with a lot of talking; namely from Suzan ( Natalie West, best known for her role as Crystal on TV's Roseanne and The Conners ). She's a folk singer and Joni Mitchell fan of a certain age, trying to convince Alex ( Jose Nateras ) why she deserves a job in a big box fulfillment facility. Alex is trying to make a positive impression on the higher-ups so he and his girlfriend Madeleine ( Toya Turner ) can move to Seattle. And on the outskirts of town, John ( Steve Schine ) watches but doesn't say much, his presence imposing and motives unclear.

Koogler's script brings to mind independent films of the 1990s, with spare settings, dialogue with subtext behind every syllable and characters who seem like people you know. Though Suzan chatters merrily to anyone who will listen, offering cookies from a package and liquor from a flask, her hunger for human connection is barely bubbling under the surface. Alex tries to hold it together at work and home, but constantly worries he isn't leadership material and will never please the girlfriend who left New York to be with him in the middle of nowhere. Though Madeleine initially comes off demanding and high-maintenance, drawing people in only to snap at them, her layers are slowly peeled away to reveal a vulnerable woman well out of her element and dealing with serious issues. John is Fulfillment Center's most mysterious—and possibly dangerous—character, rounding out a fascinating yet ( mostly ) relatable quartet.

Some may argue nothing really happens in Fulfillment Center; I would counter everything happens. Life works that way: secrets gradually revealed, feelings confessed one word or gesture at a time. Director McLeod, currently at the helm of Chicago's resident production of Hamilton, aces a completely different kind of story here. At the heart of every story is its characters, who want something, anything, everything. From its first monologue to its final, heartbreaking words, Fulfillment Center illustrates an environment of isolation and the regular people trying to push through it.

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